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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Local Government and Communities Committee 27 September 2017

Agenda: Building Regulations (Fire Safety), Homelessness, Subordinate Legislation


Contents


Building Regulations (Fire Safety)

Good morning and welcome to the 23rd meeting in 2017 of the Local Government and Communities Committee. I remind everyone present to turn off mobile phones. As members’ papers are provided in digital format, they may use tablets during the meeting. We are not quite all here yet, but no apologies have been received, so I hope that we will have a full house of MSPs shortly.

Under agenda item 1, the committee will take evidence as part of its scrutiny of building regulations and fire safety in Scotland. I welcome the Minister for Local Government and Housing, Kevin Stewart. Good morning, minister.

Good morning.

I also welcome Bill Dodds, who is head of building standards at the Scottish Government, and David McGown, who is assistant chief officer in the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. Good morning, gentlemen.

Bill Dodds (Scottish Government)

Good morning.

David McGown (Scottish Fire and Rescue Service)

Good morning.

I thank you all for joining us.

I understand that the minister has an opening statement to make to the committee. We would be keen to hear that now.

I am grateful for the opportunity to talk to the committee about the steps that the Scottish Government has taken to ensure that building regulations and fire safety are robust. That work has added urgency following the tragic events at Grenfell tower. My thoughts and deepest sympathies remain with all those who are affected by that tragedy.

In the days that followed the Grenfell tower fire, the Scottish Government immediately took proactive steps to establish a ministerial working group on building and fire safety. The group was set up with the primary aim of offering public reassurance and ensuring that we took any action that was needed as a result of what we know, or will find out, about the Grenfell tower fire.

The group’s work has been twofold. Our first focus was on responding proactively and immediately to offer reassurance to the public on the fire safety of high-rise buildings—in particular, high-rise domestic buildings. The nature and scale of the work was resource intensive, and I express my gratitude to local authorities, housing associations and the other organisations that were involved for their responsiveness to our requests. That helped the ministerial working group to establish quickly the extent of the use of aluminium composite material in high-rise buildings.

I also record my thanks to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service for the steps that it immediately took to prioritise home fire safety visits in domestic high-rise properties. More than 1,200 visits have taken place, and everyone who requested a home fire safety visit has received one. Inspections of high-rise residential buildings have also carried on, and almost 900 inspections have been carried out since the Grenfell tower fire. Sixty thousand fire safety leaflets have also been distributed to provide reassurance to residents. However, the ministerial working group is conscious that public reassurance on fire safety must be on-going, so we have commissioned a targeted national fire safety campaign for high-rise domestic buildings, which will be launched shortly and which focuses on key messages, including fire safety, evacuation and stay-put procedures.

The group’s second focus has been on a wider range of measures to enhance and strengthen building regulations, enforcement and compliance as well as fire safety. Today, I am able to inform the committee that I have appointed two established leaders in their field of expertise to chair the two groups that will undertake the review of building standards. Professor John Cole will chair the review of enforcement and compliance, and Dr Paul Stollard will chair the review of fire safety in building standards. I am delighted that we are fortunate enough to have two chairs of such high calibre leading the work.

Scottish building regulations from 2005 prevent the cladding of high-rise domestic buildings with the same type of ACM that was found on Grenfell tower. However, ministers are aware that, although such cladding was clearly a major contributing factor to the rapid spread of the fire, it may not have been the only one. We will therefore be ready to respond to any relevant findings or recommendations that emerge from the Grenfell tower public inquiry, and our work programme will remain flexible in order to allow us to take any appropriate actions.

Although it is important to understand which buildings have ACM on them, it is equally important to understand that the presence of ACM cladding by itself does not necessarily mean that a building is defective or dangerous. It is the extent of use of ACM as part of the overall cladding system that forms part of the judgment of a building’s safety, and it is information on that that we sought to collate.

We quickly gathered information from all local authorities that no social high-rise buildings were clad in ACM, and we then gained clarity from 31 local authorities that no ACM had been found in building warrant applications for private domestic high-rise buildings.

Glasgow City Council reported the presence of ACM on some private high-rise properties. We offered that council assistance in further interrogating the information that it holds, and it has now accepted that offer. We expect it to establish soon the exact number of its buildings with ACM, the type of ACM and the extent of its use as part of cladding systems. From that, we expect Glasgow City Council to provide the same information that we have received from other local authorities. As the committee rightly noted during its previous evidence session, Glasgow City Council has a responsibility to its residents to progress that work as a matter of urgency.

I hope that that brief overview of a very complicated issue is of use and that the committee recognises that the ministerial working group is taking all of the issue very seriously. Our work programme covers a number of important streams of work, and we have put mechanisms in place to ensure that we are able to take action as and when needed.

Thank you very much for that detailed opening statement, minister.

You will appreciate that, given the nature of the evidence that was given to committee members last week, they will want to start by discussing the Glasgow situation. However, I am also conscious that we are carrying out a wider inquiry. We therefore intend to ask specific questions about Glasgow for a while and then move on to wider issues.

The way in which members of the public and the committee discovered that there were issues in Glasgow was wholly inappropriate. It is reasonable to ask for your views on that in the first instance. Communication to the committee and, indirectly, to the wider public was done in such a way that it has potentially caused additional fear and alarm that was perhaps not necessary. Should the local authority reflect on that and remedy the situation as soon as possible?

I am very disappointed in some of the things that were said last week. The ministerial working group received information from the chief building standards officer, Mr Dodds, regarding the information that Glasgow City Council had provided to the working group. We were unhappy with the lack of detail that we received. As I have said, we received full details from other local authorities. Mr Dodds has asked for that information to be interrogated further and for the information that we require to come to us.

As committee members are probably aware, we have offered Glasgow City Council help along the way. We recognise that, as Edinburgh and Glasgow are bigger cities, their local authorities have more work to do than some other authorities. The City of Edinburgh Council accepted help and received somewhere in the region of 150 person hours to help it to deal with the information that we required. However, Glasgow City Council refused help. It was not until the council leader instructed the officers there that they finally took that help. We moved folk in there yesterday.

The key thing is to get the right information. The convener is right to say that not having that can cause alarm out there. That is why it is so important that we have the right information before we take the next steps.

Beyond that, I was particularly disappointed by some of the answers that were given to the deputy convener’s line of questioning on the issues. Ms Smith rightly asked questions about responsibility. The witness’s response was that, in terms of legislative powers, there is not much that local authorities can do other than notify people. That was extremely disappointing, because there are a number of powers. Glasgow City Council is responsible for the verification and enforcement of building standards and, if it feels that there is a danger out there, it has the ability to act. If the owner does not do the work, the local authority can do it and recoup the costs later.

I would expect people to know the full extent of the powers that they have under the Building (Scotland) Act 2003. I aim to ensure that all building standards officers know what their responsibilities are in that regard. I expect that the vast bulk of them do anyway, but I will take steps to write to all local authorities about that so that they know exactly what their responsibilities are.

That is helpful, minister. It is staggering that the assistant head of planning and building standards at Glasgow City Council did not know what his statutory powers were in relation to building standards and enforcement. Your letter of 20 September outlines that to the committee.

We want to move on to the issue of people in Glasgow and people right across the country. You mentioned a lack of clarity in the information that Glasgow City Council gave to the ministerial working group. I assume that that lack of clarity was not an issue in relation to the City of Edinburgh Council. It sought and was offered support, and records were interrogated. What lack of clarity have you had from Glasgow City Council? What has it not done well enough?

I will bring in Mr Dodds to talk about the lack of clarity, because some of this is detailed and technical—as you are well aware, convener, given the briefings that you have had. However, I note that 18 of the 32 local authorities have high-rise buildings and that 18 responded very quickly and did not have difficulty in putting together the information that we asked for. As I said, we recognised that there may be more work for Glasgow City Council and the City of Edinburgh Council, which is why we offered the support that we did. The City of Edinburgh Council took up that offer of support and Glasgow City Council did not. It now has that support.

We have an email from Glasgow City Council, which my officials received at 8.16 this morning, that says that it is on track to complete the necessary work by the end of this week. I will be keeping a close tab on that to make sure that that work is completed as soon as it possibly can be. You are absolutely right, convener: we need to take any actions that are necessary as a result of the completed information that we receive.

I will hand over to Mr Dodds to talk about the detail, if you do not mind, convener.

Good morning. The clarity that was sought was mainly on the extent of the cladding. Many high-rise buildings have a combination of different cladding types, such as render, rainscreen cladding and ACM. The majority of the requests for clarity were about the age of the buildings, the height of the buildings and the extent of the cladding material. We were given descriptions such as “Two floors of penthouse flats”, so we sought that clarity.

It is important to note that the entire Grenfell building was overclad with ACM material, so there was a complete enclosure of ACM material. We are trying to establish whether we have a Grenfell-type arrangement whereby a building is completely overclad with an ACM product or whether there are such arrangements in isolated areas. We are asking for clarity on that.

There were also questions about plan retrieval and looking at on-the-ground inspections to clarify whether some of the information was absolutely as it should have been. That almost line-by-line request for additional clarity has gone back now, and we have been given a reassurance that we will get that. I hope that that will be by the end of this week.

09:45  

I suppose that the obvious question to ask is why Glasgow City Council put in a return that lacked that clarity in the first place. I can guess two potential reasons for that. One is that Glasgow did not know what was expected of it, in which case we should be asking why it did not know what was expected while other local authorities did. The second is that Glasgow City Council’s record keeping in relation to building warrants over a number of years might not be up to scratch.

As you rightly point out, other local authorities managed to undertake the exercise quite quickly—including the City of Edinburgh Council—with the additional help that I mentioned. It is very disappointing that Glasgow has not managed to do the same.

The committee may already be aware of my responsibilities in terms of appointing verifiers. Reappointment recently took place, and a number of local authorities that were performing well got the maximum six years of verification. Authorities that were average got three-year verifications, and three local authorities that I thought were performing poorly, or were not performing as well as they should, got one-year verifications. Those three were Glasgow City Council, the City of Edinburgh Council and Stirling Council. We agreed that we would audit those local authorities in November in order to make sure that all that they are doing is up to scratch, including their record keeping. Mr Dodds will give you the detail on record keeping.

It is safe to say that we gave consistent information to all authorities. We met the Edinburgh officials quite early on—in the middle of July—and went through the process of establishing what the ACM should be. There were a number of requests to have meetings with Glasgow officials, but summer holidays and so on intervened and there were a number of phone calls in which the information that we were looking for was explained.

I believe that there were some difficulties in Glasgow in retrieving documents from archives and so forth; I know that Glasgow City Council has been going through some issues with information technology as it has changed its IT system. However, the record keeping in the council is certainly something that we will look at during the audit process, in order to ensure that the right type of information is being retained. The two surveyors who are there just now will be working through those records: no doubt, we will get some feedback from them to establish exactly what the issue was in retrieving information.

Could there be—dare I say it—a positive legacy for Glasgow City Council? Will the Scottish Government work with the local authority to provide support—not just to ensure that Glasgow’s record keeping is spot on, but so that retrieval of information can be speedy and effective when it is needed, and to make sure that the information on building warrants and in documentation is as it should be?

We do not want just to assure ourselves that Glasgow City Council has all that information accurate as of Friday, so that it can inform owners of, and residents in, affected properties. We also want to be assured of that in six months, or in a year or two, when we may have to go through the whole process again. We may have to interrogate building warrants to reassure ourselves, for another reason, that the correct materials have been used in the construction of a development—I hope not another disaster on the scale of Grenfell. Will lessons be learned—not just in Glasgow, because there are 32 local authorities, although others seem to have moved much more speedily and successfully—relating to how speedily we can pull the required information off the building warrants system?

Prior to the situation at Grenfell, I had to make the decision on appointment of verifiers. The decisions about audit and other matters came before the Grenfell situation.

It has now become apparent that some local authorities require the expert help that we can provide. I have made it very clear throughout, as has Mr Dodds, that if local authorities feel that they need a hand from my officials—some expert advice—to ensure that good practice is being exported, that can and will happen.

Mr Dodds has been a bit diplomatic. The disappointing thing is that Glasgow City Council refused to meet officials on the matter, and did not seek a meeting. We can be nice and mention the holidays, but the council had the same opportunity as others and did not take it.

The other disappointing thing—I cannot reiterate this enough—is that Glasgow City Council refused help when it was offered. It took the intervention of the council leader to get building standards officers in Glasgow to accept help. That is unacceptable.

You are getting nodding heads from committee members. The committee also believes that it is unacceptable not to take the expertise and support that is required when it is such a priority to protect public safety in residential properties in Glasgow.

I have a final question, after which the deputy convener will explore other lines of questioning. Much was made of the fact that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service in Glasgow was unaware of the situation. We have Mr McGown here today, and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service sits on the ministerial working group. In terms of lines of communication, I believe that Glasgow City Council should have immediately told the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service in Glasgow. However, the service is on the ministerial working group, so it is not outwith the realms of possibility that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service could pick up the phone and speak to the team in Glasgow. In terms of future proofing, on reflection, could more have been done at the ministerial working group to notify the fire service in Glasgow?

As the convener rightly said, the fire service is on the ministerial working group. It is very important that we have its input. On inspections and the rest of what has happened, I will hand over to David McGown. Although information did not come from Glasgow City Council to the fire service, he will be able to tell the committee the level of inspection that has taken place—not only since the information came to light, but over the whole period.

The information that we received as part of the ministerial working group on 8 September was unclear. Any definitive information that we get about risk within premises is passed directly to our local crews, who clearly must have such information about risks in their areas. Once we received more substantial information—albeit that it was incomplete—it was passed to the local crews straight away. At the same time, the crews were in dialogue with Glasgow City Council.

On the buildings that were identified by Glasgow City Council and the information that was eventually passed to the ministerial working group, there were 57 properties, 42 of which have already been visited by operational crews as part of the standard quarterly inspection programme that our operational crews conduct across the whole of Scotland. Those 42 visits have occurred since Grenfell. Since that tragic incident, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has concentrated its programme of inspections, which is a regular programme throughout Scotland, on relevant properties. The 42 properties were on our radar and in the records of local crews in Glasgow. The other 15 inspections are being completed as we speak today. We hope that, by this time next week, those inspections will have been completed by our local crews.

That is very helpful.

It might be helpful to point out that it is the norm for every building over 18m to be reported to the fire service and for routine inspections to take place. I understand that those 15 buildings are not on the routine list. I will hand over to Mr McGown on that.

The information that we received from Glasgow City Council was rather incomplete; it was not definitive enough even to say whether all the buildings were high-rise premises, which are the buildings on which we concentrate our inspection programme. However, regardless of whether the buildings are high rise or not, we are making a point of visiting those 15 premises—even if they are what we class as medium or low rise. If those buildings are high rise, they will be included in our on-going inspection programme in Glasgow.

It was unfortunate that the information was not clear and definitive enough following the last ministerial working group to allow us to get out there straight away. We received the information from Glasgow City Council last week.

Other committee members want to come in. The minister mentioned our deputy convener’s line of questioning last week: I know that she is keen to follow up on it.

We had limited time for my questions last week, but I was trying to ask Glasgow City Council why it did not act immediately on the information that it had. If the ministerial working group had not been set up and asked for that information, the council might not have had that information in the first place. There are still questions about why the council, once it had the information, did not take the offer of help and did not act immediately.

One of the answers that Raymond Barlow gave last week in response to the convener was that the council felt that it was enough for it to pass on that information to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. Mr Barlow said:

“Therefore the fire service at the highest national level in Scotland will be party to the information that we have provided.”——[Official Report, Local Government and Communities Committee, 20 September 2017; c 6.]

There seems to be some sort of communication breakdown. I mentioned red tape: Mr Barlow seemed not to take kindly to that, but what I meant was to ask why there was a delay.

Are you in a position to give us any kind of answer to that? I know that Glasgow City Council has now said that it will take assistance. However, last week we heard that there was information and that Glasgow City Council felt that it had done its bit by passing it to the ministerial working group—the council went further than that when it said that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service clearly knew the information because of that—so there was a gap. Can you comment further on that? I did not get a clear answer to the question why the council did not take immediate action.

I, too, think that the committee did not get a clear answer. I will let Mr Dodds tackle the technical bits first, then I will come in on the rest.

On the first point about the offer of assistance, Glasgow City Council’s building control team believed that it had the requisite number of staff and qualifications for it to be able to undertake the assessment and collate the information. That was its assessment. We asked a number of times whether it wanted assistance and were given assurances that the information was forthcoming. It did not, however, come through as quickly as the information from other local authorities. It is safe to say that we had more dialogue with other authorities.

The second question—about why the council did not act on the information—is something that you will need to ask Glasgow City Council about specifically. Again, it is something that we want to take up with the council. My sense is that there was not the required level of detailed information and that it would have been incorrect to act on limited information and to set hares running.

I am sorry to interrupt, but do you mean that it would be incorrect for the ministerial group to act on the limited information?

No, I am talking about Glasgow City Council. If my interpretation of what was said last week is correct, it said that it was collecting information, but did not have full information at that time and was reluctant to act on what it had.

What came over in the previous meeting was that the council thought that its undertaking was simply to supply the ministerial working group with information and that, thereafter, the working group would be responsible for doing something with that information. In the past—in the case of the schools estate, for example—information has been fed back when inappropriate material has been found, and the local authority has taken action to expand the information. The local authority was asked, “Now that you have found the material, given the information that you have, what are you doing?” and thereafter reassurances were given to the ministerial working group. Ultimately, the building owner is responsible for their buildings.

10:00  

At the time of the previous committee meeting, the information had just come to light. My understanding is that it was because of the limited nature of that information that Glasgow City Council was looking for guidance on what to do with it.

There is a very important strand here concerning responsibility, and who is responsible for what. As Mr Dodds has pointed out, the building owner is ultimately responsible for compliance. However, the Building (Scotland) Act 2003 says quite clearly that councils have responsibility for verification and enforcement. If, at any point, Mr Barlow or his team had felt that there were dangers, they should have taken enforcement action.

The only way that the ministerial working group could take any enforcement action would be if I used powers under the 2003 act to remove enforcement powers from a local authority and directed enforcement myself. If I thought that such a step was necessary to ensure safety, I would take it.

Glasgow City Council said in a press release last week that it is confident that the buildings are safe. I take it that that was the judgment of Mr Barlow and his building standards team before the press release went out. However, we need to get all the information that is required in order to see what needs to be done.

We, along with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and Mr Dodds, have at every point offered the help that is required. We have dealt with our responsibilities. The part of the response to the deputy convener’s questions last week that disturbed me the most was that there seemed to be a lack of understanding about the responsibilities of local authorities under the 2003 act.

I want assurance that any local authority that finds something that is of concern in the future will act immediately. That is what we need to know.

I would expect any local authority to take action if it felt that action was necessary. If I were to find that a local authority was not taking action that was required, I would consider invoking the powers that I have under the 2003 act to deal with enforcement myself.

Thank you.

There are a few more lines of questioning specifically around the Glasgow situation before we move on. If members are seeking my attention to come in, I ask them to bear that in mind.

I am relieved to hear that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service now knows where the buildings are and that, by the end of today, it will have looked at them all. Do the people who live in those buildings know yet? That was a line of questioning at last week’s meeting. Have they been told?

Again, it is Glasgow City Council’s responsibility to inform the building owners, and I would expect the owners to inform residents. With regard to the question that Patrick Harvie posed last week, I would go further. I expect that if information comes through that there are difficulties in a building, Glasgow City Council, the building owners and others would co-operate in providing a door-to-door information service, because that is what people deserve.

However, as things stand, we are still not certain about what the situation is in all the buildings. We need to get all that information. As I said earlier, Glasgow City Council hopes to have all the information by the end of this week. We can then look at what is required. As with every other situation, if the Government can help in some way in disseminating information, we will do so. According to the building standards regime, of course, the building owners have responsibility for dealing with any situation that is found to be wanting.

That is where we are at. We still do not have all the information to get to that point. I refer again to the Glasgow City Council press release from last week, which said that, as far as the council is concerned, there are no safety issues at the moment.

As I said last week, it is not up to you or the working group to inform the owners. That is just a matter of courtesy for Glasgow City Council, but it does not appear to have done that. I am concerned that it took until yesterday for the council to allow your officials in. Given the furore last week, and given that the council has dragged its feet for weeks and refused offers of help, I had thought that it would have pulled its finger out. It is on notice, in effect, because you have given it only a year’s verification. What will happen if it fails your stringent tests after that year?

I will keep a very close eye on all that. We would have done that prior to the current situation arising, anyway. We will look at what the audit brings out and we will look for improvement. If there is no improvement, obviously I will have to consider whether to use my powers to appoint another verifier to deal with the situation in Glasgow.

Okay.

Do other members want to ask about the Glasgow situation?

I wish to clarify a point that Mr McGown made about inspections of 42 of the 57 buildings. I understand that those inspections were undertaken as part of routine visits, and I presume that you inspected stairwells, alarms, sprinkler systems and doors to ensure that things operated. To be clear, you did not inspect the cladding or anything like that. As the minister has said, our information is still incomplete, but it appears that all those buildings complied with the building regulations when they were built—they were built to pre-2005 standards—and, according to Glasgow City Council, it does not have any evidence that they pose any fire risk. Just to be clear, such things were not looked at. Will you briefly indicate the kind of things that were looked at?

Absolutely. I will not go into too much of the technical detail regarding the legislation, but owners of such premises have a responsibility to ensure that what we class as the common areas—common stairwells, and access to the building and into those common areas and the flats—are maintained to a standard that allows firefighters to attend and fight a fire safely. That is also for the protection of firefighters.

The buildings do not come within the scope of legislation that would require a fire safety enforcement audit to take place—they are not classed as “relevant premises”. Our programme of quarterly operational intelligence and reassurance visits are for two distinct purposes: to provide reassurance to the residents of the buildings—particularly after Grenfell—and, perhaps more important, to gather operational intelligence for firefighters and fire crews to ensure that they have sufficient means of access. Therefore, the roads that give access to the building and the means of access into the building are looked at. We look at the integrity of fire-resisting doors, the clearance of the stairways and the presence of rising mains and fire lifts, but we do not look at other aspects that would be looked at in a fire safety audit.

The visit is quite comprehensive, but Mr Wightman is right to say that we do not have the responsibilities—or the particular skills—to do what could be classed as intrusive inspections into cladding, its presence or its grading. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has a distinct responsibility, which we discharge through our programme of quarterly inspections.

That is helpful. Thank you.

The minister talked about responsibility. The crux of the matter is that Glasgow City Council has a responsibility, as do the owners of the buildings and the fire service. Everyone playing their part would assume that everything would work. Here, there was a communication breakdown and the situation went awry.

What lessons can be learned from the whole process? The fire service is looking at how it can tighten things up. The minister said that if things do not happen, he will take the powers that he has and which could be used. However, the situation that arose last week—in which we found out that information at a committee meeting—should never have arisen. What really bothers me is that the situation came to light only because of some questioning, whereas all those organisations have a responsibility, which did not manage to filter through, to make sure that everyone was safe or secure or that there was no anxiety that those buildings could have a problem.

The lesson is about how we manage and learn from that. The situation could have been much worse had we not been made aware of it or had something happened in the interim, when we assumed that responsibilities were being carried out.

I agree with Alexander Stewart that we need to look at the communications. I have sat on the other side of the committee table, and my line of questioning would not have been any different from the line that the committee took last week. I am very disappointed in the answers that were given and the lack of clarity in the responses.

As the committee is aware—and as everyone else out there is aware—31 local authorities had reported back, saying that they had no difficulties with private high-rise buildings. We had one authority that could have said, last week, without any difficulty, “We are still working through the information. We may have a difficulty, but we have been asked to provide further information and to go back and check so that we can give people the real information that they require. We will take any action that is required if we find anything.” That, in itself, bothers me to a huge extent.

The committee can be assured that we will do everything that we can to make sure that local authorities are open and transparent about the whole situation. We have been as open and transparent as possible, all the way through, regarding everything that has come to light—whether it be on hospitals or other aspects. I would expect that openness and transparency, because without it the public will lose trust in what we are doing.

Alexander Stewart rightly outlined the responsibilities of building owners, councils, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, my officials and others. As elected members of the Scottish Parliament, we also have a responsibility to make sure that if we need to tighten up regulation or to change legislation, we can do so. Our legislation is much more robust than the legislation elsewhere on these islands.

However, I am not complacent. We need to take a long hard look at this. I will be poring over the committee’s recommendations and taking advice from the experts that we are putting in place and from others, including bodies such as Local Authority Building Standards Scotland and the Fire Brigades Union that do not serve on the ministerial working group.

10:15  

I have been talking to tenants in Aberdeen and in Glasgow, where I also spoke to tenants from the Lanarkshires, Inverclyde and other areas. We have to take on board what they say in order to get this absolutely right.

The 2003 act is a fairly good piece of legislation as it allows us to change regulation quite quickly on the advice of experts. That is one of the reasons why our legislation is more robust: we have been able to react, but we have also been proactive in making changes as and when they are required.

There are responsibilities on all those folks, but we also have a responsibility to ensure that we take the action that is required and make any required changes to legislation or regulation.

I would not be doing my job properly as a Glasgow MSP if I did not put on record the fact that all social rented high-rises in Glasgow have no combustible or ACM cladding, and they are safe. There are many high-rises in my constituency of Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn, and I have had constituents contact me. People who are watching the telly and reading the newspapers do not always pick up the messages—they just hear that there are properties that could be at risk. Worried constituents from social housing in my constituency have contacted me, and I have been able to reassure them. However, we need to get across the key message again today that those properties are safe. If you could do that, minister, I would, as an MSP in Glasgow, be very grateful.

In addition, there are hard-working, diligent officials in Glasgow City Council who are working as hard as they can today to get all the required information. They are just doing their job—they are not part of the internal decision-making process of dealing with building warrants. They, and the people of Glasgow, will want to hear that we have moved on from the question of what Glasgow City Council has or has not done well. It is self-evident that the council has done a lot of things pretty poorly. However, there is now a partnership approach with the Scottish Government and the situation is under control, and we can move forward on that basis.

First, I can give an assurance that all social housing in Glasgow is free from such material. In fact, I can go further than that and say that we have reports from all 32 local authorities that that material is not on social rented properties anywhere in Scotland.

Like you, convener, I have a fair number of high-rises in my constituency. Aberdeen has 59, most of which are in my constituency. I am able to say to folk throughout Scotland that all 32 local authorities have reported back that none of the kind of cladding that was used in Grenfell has been found on any high-rise social rented property in Scotland.

Some folk will be sitting at their desks or getting out and about looking at buildings, doing the job that they are being asked to do, and I thank them for doing that job. You are right, convener, that we now have Scottish Government help in Glasgow and we should move forward.

The key point in all this for me, as it should be for everyone, is that we need to gather all the required information. As I stated earlier, it seems from the email that we received this morning that the work is on track to be completed by Friday. We must work in partnership to ensure that that is done, and we can then move forward from there and take the necessary actions.

To broaden things out a bit, I want to ask about the remit of the ministerial working group. I have a technical question about how the information was gathered in the first instance. A couple of weeks ago we heard from the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations that it had conducted a survey of its members, and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities told us that it had conducted a desktop exercise. How did you ask local authorities to gather the data in the first instance? Was it in a letter?

We asked local authorities to gather up data, and we have also asked others to help with that, including the likes of the Scottish Property Federation. We have also asked other Government departments to look at aspects of their estate; that included health—obviously—the Scottish Prison Service and a number of others. I am looking to my colleagues here and I will hand over to Mr Dodds, because I have probably missed a number of folk off that list.

The ministerial working group task evolved. Initially the focus was high-rise domestic social housing, for which Mr Stewart wrote a letter, but it became apparent as we were going through the process that more, and more detailed, information would be required. For example, with schools we asked for the heights of buildings, their areas and so on.

We were very much following the United Kingdom Government process and, because the information was being released to us bit by bit, it was quite an evolutionary process. We started with letters and then used pro formas, and it became apparent that the level of detail and information held—by housing associations, for example—was sometimes quite extensive but sometimes limited. That is why the ministerial working group took the decision to create an inventory of all high-rise buildings in Scotland.

We are now working with contractors to develop that inventory, including the age and type of the buildings, and that will help to inform future ministerial decisions on what other measures should be taken on existing stock. It is horses for courses; we required different information for the different building types, but essentially we have asked whether ACM is present, what its extent is, and about the age and height of the building. That is the type of information that we are looking at, based on the nature of the risk in the different building types.

Another organisation that I missed off the list of those that we asked to help was the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council. We asked it for information on student accommodation.

Now that the data has come in, will there—on reflection—be any physical inspection of buildings by anyone from central Government? Will someone go out and work directly to check that the information submitted was accurate?

Mr Dodds will answer on the technicalities and then I will come back in.

That is something for the working group that has been set up for the enforcement side. In previous meetings the committee has heard a fair bit of evidence saying that it is all very well having the information on paper and plans in the office, but how do we know that the specified product is the one that has found its way on to the building? There have been a limited number of examples in which products have been substituted and so forth, so it is by no means certain that what has been specified on the building warrant has found its way on to the building.

That is a big issue and you are right to raise it. Professor John Cole will take that forward as part of his review of the enforcement of and compliance with building regulations, to make sure not only that the paperwork is correct when a building warrant is issued, but that there is a means of signing off to make sure that what was specified is what is on the building. We do not have widespread knowledge of substitutions happening, but a limited number of examples have been reported in the press and they have been dealt with. By and large, the processes that have been gone through have found that the material on most buildings was compliant with the building regulations that applied at the time that they were built.

We have an example from Edinburgh Napier University, in which something was put on a building that should not have been there. The university discovered that very quickly and took action. I reiterate the point that building owners have responsibility. Any building owner in Scotland who has any doubt about cladding can send it for testing, to make doubly certain—if you like—that it is compliant. That option is available to building owners and we can disseminate the information to the committee—the offer comes from the UK Government.

Minister, you said in your opening statement that everyone who has requested a home fire safety visit has received one.

This may be a question for Mr McGown. Those visits are obviously not compulsory and we know that more vulnerable groups are not likely to offer themselves up for them. Have you prioritised certain groups? Have you given direction on who should be taken first for those visits?

As part of our normal work, even before Grenfell, we do a lot of work with partners in local areas to identify the most vulnerable in our communities so that we can concentrate our resources and offer home fire safety visits to them. A lot of the time, the information comes through a referral process. We want to do a lot more of that part of our work in the coming years.

We are conducting research and working with health and social care to try to identify the most vulnerable forensically and specifically, in terms not of households but of the individuals whom we want to concentrate on.

We have prioritised home fire safety visits since Grenfell and, for the purpose of public reassurance, anybody who has asked for a home fire safety visit and who lives in a high-rise premise has been prioritised, along with those whom we deem to be most vulnerable. Previously, we would have assessed the risk and the likelihood of them having a fire. To provide reassurance following Grenfell, if anyone has asked for a visit, they will have received one.

I will move on. You may have seen a BBC report this morning about sprinklers in high-rise flats. The BBC did some research through freedom of information requests to the fire service and discovered that, since 2009, 15 people have died and more than 480 have been hurt in high-rise fires—that is, fires in buildings of over 10 storeys. There were, however, no deaths in any building where there was a sprinkler system, and only one of the casualties was in a tower block with a sprinkler system. I realise that those are basic figures, but what do they tell us about whether we should have sprinkler systems in blocks where they do not exist at present?

I will go first and then bring in Mr McGown. If I remember rightly from my reading very early this morning, that BBC report also had a comment from Brian Sweeney, the ex-chief fire officer, who talked about other factors that might make a difference.

Given his expertise, Mr McGown can speak about the technicalities. The ministerial working group has already said that it will look carefully at all those situations in relation to the use of fire suppression systems. I am grateful to fellow MSPs who have provided us with information about new products on the market that could be used for fire suppression. The fire service and building standards are jointly looking at those.

One of the things that I have announced today is the review of fire safety and building standards, and we will see what proposals Dr Paul Stollard comes back with. The ministerial working group will interrogate all the information—we will look at it very carefully indeed.

The fire service provided the information that the BBC used, which is completely factual.

I do not want to make light of the 15 tragic deaths in high-rise premises since 2009, but to provide some context I should say that Scotland experiences approximately 40 to 45 fire deaths per year. The number has been and continues to be on a steady decline. Over that period of about eight years in which 15 fire deaths occurred in high-rise premises, Scotland would have experienced around 360 fire deaths—I would need to get exact figures. The majority of our fire deaths in Scotland occur outwith high-rise premises. That is not to diminish the fact that, tragically, 15 people died in such premises, or that there is something that we can and should do about that.

10:30  

I spoke about our home fire safety visits. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service focuses on prevention measures—particularly bespoke, new and innovative prevention measures—to allow us to stop fire deaths happening. As you might expect, most of our fire deaths occur among the most vulnerable in society. In the past few years, many of those cases have been in single-person private dwellings in remote rural locations—those dwellings are at the other end of the scale from high-rise buildings.

I emphasise that we are doing a lot of work. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, the Fire Industry Association and the Buildings Research Establishment in Watford, which is carrying out tests on cladding, have just commissioned research that will look specifically at what we can do to target the most vulnerable better, provide bespoke and innovative ways to reduce the risk of their having a fire, and improve their chances of surviving if they happen to have one. There is already established research on the use of sprinklers and automatic fire suppression systems—there is quite a wide range of automatic fire suppression systems that can be put into industrial buildings or dwellings.

Our position is that the use of automatic fire suppression systems can be very effective indeed. Every piece of research shows that and this morning’s BBC piece backs that up. However, it would be more effective to take a risk-based approach, and to apply resource and install such systems where the risk is, rather than to have sprinklers installed in buildings per se. We assume that the research that we commissioned will back up the research that has been conducted over the past five or six years. The BRE approached Scotland because we have a can-do approach and want to do something specific about the particular issue of reducing fire deaths across the country.

Is the BRE study looking at just the most vulnerable in society, or is it looking at fire safety systems more widely?

It is specifically looking at the most vulnerable. We already have a range of evidence about the people who not only have a fire but succumb to the fire, who tend to be among the most vulnerable in society. We are talking about only 40 to 45 fire deaths per year, but we will not ignore the fact that we have to continue installing prevention measures in the homes of thousands of people across Scotland. We will focus on the most vulnerable, but not to the exclusion of other properties and individuals who may be at risk.

We have heard evidence about people doing small-scale repairs in their homes. They may start with a fire door and replace it, after some do-it-yourself or getting tradesmen in, with a door that is not a fire door. That has been a concern of the committee. Is that being addressed by the Government or the working group?

I will certainly take a look at that. At the moment, if somebody was to replace a fire door, no building warrant would be required. However, the replacement door should not be of lesser quality in terms of rigour than the door that it is replacing. I have noted that, over the piece, the committee has asked a number of questions about the issue. I will ensure that we and the groups that we are establishing look at the area to see whether it needs to be tightened up.

I want to check something before we move on. Will those reviews of sprinkler systems and other forms of fire suppression systems link in with the on-going consultation on smoke and fire alarms? Obviously, a mixture of fire mitigation methods can be used to prevent fires from spreading or to stop them starting in the first place. Will sprinkler systems be looked at in isolation, or will that work link into the on-going consultation?

The consultation on fire and smoke alarms in domestic dwellings was due to happen later this year, but we brought it forward to allow us to see what is required in that regard. At one of your previous meetings, Alexander Stewart said that some of the emphasis of late has been on the private rented sector, because it is seen as the most risky area. That is the case. We have developed much better regulation in the private rented sector, and it is now time for the social rented sector and owner-occupiers to catch up. That will be a 12-week consultation, after which we will look at what has come back and what is required.

Any work on fire suppression would come later. Obviously, the ministerial working group needs to have a rigorous look at all the issues and take advice from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, our building standards colleagues and others, including the groups that we have established, before we make a move in that regard.

Do we know which high-rise properties currently have sprinkler systems and which do not have such systems? Is that information recorded in local authority building warrant records? If not, where is it held? If we wanted to introduce a measure relating to sprinkler or other systems, would the 32 local authorities just have to go through their records, or would we change the law and then expect the local authorities to comply with that change? There is a lot in that. How do we know what the current situation—not the legislative situation—is with sprinklers?

I will bring in Mr Dodds on that.

That is a good question. For the building inventory, we will specifically ask whether high-rise buildings have sprinklers fitted. There is an issue about the readiness of existing high-rise buildings to facilitate sprinklers. Not all buildings are structurally sound enough to allow the retrospective installation of sprinklers. It is safe to say that there is only limited use of sprinklers in existing high-rise buildings—not that many high-rise buildings in Scotland have them. We asked about that in one of our early information requests, but that threw up the requirement to have a more detailed and structured look at the existing stock to see exactly what is there. The installation of a sprinkler system requires a building warrant, so we would be able to find out about that quite quickly if the committee wanted that information.

We have asked local authorities for many pieces of information and they have been very supportive. The ministerial working group is trying its best to focus the information requests on the priority areas. That is why we felt that, for the building inventory, we could ask a contractor to work with local authorities to get all that essential information to us.

In all of this, we have been fairly methodical in the work that we have carried out. As I said in my opening statement, it is pretty intensive work and, in the main, local authorities and other bodies have responded extremely well to the requests for information. People have asked me why we focused on certain areas first. Obviously, domestic properties where folk sleep at night have been the main focus, but we have been working through the list methodically.

Mr Dodds might want to say something about current standards in suppression systems, because it is important for the committee to know about standards for new buildings.

Absolutely. Our working party is looking at the new building regulations and will be charged with looking at the latest research. We have undertaken a number of pieces of research with our fire service colleagues to consider what types of buildings should be looked at. For example, high-rise buildings of over 18m need sprinklers, and we introduced sprinklers in schools. The programme looks at the latest research and changes to the regulations. The next building types that we will look at will definitely be student accommodation, hotels and other high-rise buildings that have sleeping accommodation. That will be very much part of the focus of the work that we will take forward.

We are absolutely not complacent in any way. Like my fire service colleague David McGown, we are absolutely convinced that sprinklers have a role to play beyond new builds, but we have to draw a distinction between putting them into new buildings and retrofitting quite intrusive systems in existing buildings. They probably need to be dealt with separately.

Okay. Thank you. We will move on.

As Mr Dodds said, it is the building owner’s responsibility to ensure the safety, upkeep and maintenance of the building. We have heard quite a lot of complaints about the enforcement of building regulations. Obviously, Professor Cole will look at that issue.

My question is about the longer term. Some of the buildings are 100 years old or so. When people buy a property, they really do not know what is in it, what work has been done to it, or even whether there has been a breach of building regulations in the past that could have had an impact on the building—not necessarily a fire impact, but a structural impact, for example. Will consideration of that form part of Professor Cole’s remit?

I am looking at your news release from 6 minutes past 10 this morning. It does not include the remits of the two working groups. Can you provide the committee with a copy of their remits?

I will do that. I have announced the chairs of the groups today, but I have not had the opportunity to meet them to talk about their remits. Rather than dictating what their remits should be, I will meet them because we need to use their expertise to see what they think requires to be done. I have not had the opportunity to meet them because one of the gentlemen agreed only yesterday. However, I will do so, and we will let the committee know what the remits are after my discussions with them.

Okay. That is helpful. So those two people have taken on the roles without knowing what their remits are.

They have a broad overview of the work that they are about to embark on. They are both experts in the field. Obviously, there are things that they might want to look at in depth, and I will not rule that out.

Mr Dodds knows the two individuals much better than I do, but I have had a fair number of dealings with Professor Cole of late, and I think that the committee would agree that he did a robust job in his report on Edinburgh’s schools. I hope that the same will apply in the role that we have asked him to take.

We have shared draft remits with both chairs and they are reviewing them. They will, of course, want to work their way through them.

On your question about existing buildings, a previous parliamentary committee looked at that very issue—at aspects of dangerous buildings and building MOTs. Currently, the building standards system looks after new buildings. In 2003, powers were introduced to deal with defective buildings, which gave local authorities the ability to establish that something could become dangerous before it did so—for example, a chimney could start to look a bit shaky, but might not be dangerous. We have increased the powers—they are discretionary powers—for local authorities to deal with defective buildings. In addition, there are pilots to address some of the issues with our historic buildings. However, those elements are not scheduled to be part of our work at present. I can discuss that with the minister if he wants to look at the matter further.

10:45  

I can do no more than encourage you in that regard.

There are some good graphs that show the procedures that local authorities should follow in dealing with dangerous and defective buildings. We can pass those to the committee if that would be helpful. They are quite easy to understand and they provide an indication of how the process works.

Any information that you can provide would be very welcome.

We will do that, convener.

I encourage you to take a look at the matter as part of your remit. You talk about building a database of high-rise buildings. There are 57 such buildings in Glasgow alone that were the subject of the controversy around cladding. If we assume that there are 30 properties in each building—there may well be more—that would mean that there are around 1,500 or 2,000 owners. Each owner will have bought a flat that met the building regulations—in fact, they would not even have questioned whether it met the regulations.

Now—five, 10, 15 or 20 years later—we know more, and yet those owners, as private individuals, are not going round testing their cladding or whatever. It is very difficult for them to understand that the building that they live in might need some attention. That is a problem in the short term, but even in the longer term—40, 50 or 60 years down the line—problems can arise as a consequence of our new understanding of buildings, materials and all the rest of it.

It seems quite important, therefore, that your remit should include—not to the exclusion of other things, obviously—some consideration of how we maintain from generation to generation institutional knowledge about what is in a building, what work has been done and what standards were applied.

I will reflect on what Mr Wightman has asked for. I will not commit to anything because, as I pointed out, there is a raft of work that must be undertaken. We have approached the task methodically, and it may not be right to add a number of other things to the mix at the moment. However, I will reflect on what Mr Wightman has requested. I will look at the matter in some depth, discuss it with my officials and then take a decision.

That is helpful. I have a number of questions about the database of high-rise buildings, but I am aware that we are short of time. Perhaps the minister can come back with some more information about the scope of the database, how frequently it will be updated, what information will be sought from owners and what the purpose of the database is with regard to ensuring the safety of high-rise buildings in the longer term.

Mr Wightman has rolled up all the questions that we are keen to ask. Minister, you have given us a general reflection on that, and you can write to us with that information after the meeting.

I am more than willing to write to you in detail on that point or any other point.

That is very helpful—we would like to know the answers.

Alexander Stewart has some questions.

We have heard evidence about a skills shortage in the building industry, which has had a knock-on effect on standards and how things have progressed. What is the Scottish Government’s view on how that should be addressed? What are you doing to tackle the skills shortage?

In my day-to-day business, I have recently visited a fair number of building sites. When I am on a building site, I always ask whether there are any apprentices there because I am keen to hear their views, given that they are the future of the industry. Almost to a man and a woman—we are seeing more women in the construction industry, although I would like to see more—they say that they are enjoying their apprenticeship. When they are asked whether they would encourage their mates to join the industry, their answer is yes. We need to promote, in conjunction with the construction industry itself, the trade and the message that entering construction can lead to a good career.

It is disappointing in some regards that smaller building companies have more apprentices than some of the larger ones. I encourage the larger construction companies to look at workforce planning and take on more apprentices. My colleague Jamie Hepburn has had a number of discussions with the Construction Industry Training Board and others about apprenticeships and issues relating to getting folk into the construction industry. I do not have all the detail of that to hand, but I am more than willing to find out from Mr Hepburn exactly what has been going on and pass that information to Alexander Stewart.

One other thing to say about the construction industry is that, on a conservative estimate, at the moment 10 per cent of construction industry workers in Scotland are European. I have visited sites, including one in my own patch in Aberdeen, where 70 per cent of the construction workers are European nationals. It would be a great loss to us—a disaster, in fact—if those folks were to leave Scotland and the industry here.

You made a valid point about the role of apprenticeships in making sure that we have a stream of people coming through. However, at the other end of the scale, we should also be encouraging older individuals to become more involved in the industry, as that is very important to enable us to move forward. We have a collective responsibility to ensure that the industry is progressing effectively. The point about European Union nationals is also valid—it is important that we do all that we can on that. The main thrust of the matter is how we develop the skills base and ensure that it continues to grow and develop within the industry. What things can the Scottish Government do to ensure that that happens and what support mechanisms can it provide to ensure that companies do that workforce planning and have that understanding?

I have been making some suggestions to industry as I have been going out and about. Here in Edinburgh, I had the opportunity to meet three apprentices at a site in Pennywell—an area that is being regenerated and where good quality housing is being built. Two of the apprentices were very local and lived close to the site on which they were working and the other lived in Edinburgh, not far away. They were keen to tell me that they had never thought about entering the building industry when they were at school. A lot of things had come up during careers discussions at school, but construction was not one of them.

It would be good if the industry were to get into schools at an early stage. In the north-east of Scotland we saw a real problem with recruitment in oil and gas for a while. That industry went into schools to encourage folk down that career path and I think that the same could be done for construction. I will do anything that I can, or help ministerial colleagues to do what they can, to allow that to happen.

I will give members a time check. We are running over our time, but we will continue this item until about 10 past 11, when we will need to move on, because we have another panel of witnesses to hear from. I hope that we can fit in some more questions before then.

I have a few questions on building standards issues. On Alexander Stewart’s line of questioning, I recall that we used to have a specific college of building in Glasgow, which I think is now part of the City of Glasgow College. I do not know whether it being part of that college has had any bearing on the courses that are run—that issue may be better left for another day.

Minister, you mentioned something about making sure that what is specified in construction is actually used. We heard evidence that the use of clerks of works can help to improve compliance with building standards. Have you any proposals for action that you could take to ensure that clerks of works are used in larger public and private sector projects? It might be difficult with private sector ones, but perhaps, when we put out contracts for bidding, the procurement process could contain something on the need for clerks.

In parallel with the work that we are doing, separate work on procurement of public buildings is going on. I have previously given evidence to the Education and Skills Committee on school buildings and the Cole report. I also spoke to 30 out of the 32 local authorities the day after the Grenfell fire. That meeting was supposed to be primarily about Cole but became about Grenfell, which, again, shows that we were taking early action. At that meeting, and others that I have had since, it was said that public bodies that have used clerks of works on their projects have had the fewest problems with defects discovered at a later stage. It is wise for both the public sector and the private sector to look at the personnel that they have on the ground. In my opinion, having an experienced clerk of works might involve spending but will save a lot in the future.

I could probably provide the committee with some examples of that, rather than just an anecdote that might not be 100 per cent correct. The one that sticks in my mind is that Fife Council used clerks of works on its major projects and had very little difficulty. I am looking at Mr Dodds to see whether my memory serves me well.

Bill Dodds

I think that Glasgow City Council raised the issue last week when it was giving evidence about its schools. It has used clerks of works.

That was helpful. I am looking at the convener for confirmation, but I think that we would appreciate further information, minister.

As I have said, I can provide further information on what is going on in parallel around procurement if that would be useful to the committee.

That would be helpful.

We have been taking evidence on whether verification should be kept in the public sector. If we look at the situation down south, we can see that the private sector sometimes carries out the role of building control there. I would be grateful for your thoughts on that.

I want to tie that up with another issue. We have heard calls for building standards fee income to be ring fenced for the provision of building standards services. I would be grateful for your view on that suggestion, too.

I am conscious of time, so I am rolling up all my questions. We had a report from Unison called “Building stress: Overworked, stressed and stuck in the office.” In its key issues, it mentions that the overwhelming majority of respondents felt that their workload had got heavier in the past few years. They talked about morale being low and said that

“further budget cuts to local authorities, increased workload and the lack of a pay rise are the key reasons”

why they would not expect it to get any better.

Those are concerns about the functioning of the building control sector. So I have three questions, minister: on verification and the public sector, the ring fencing of income and the report about the workforce.

11:00  

I refer members to my entry in the register of interests, because I am a member of Unison.

I will start with the verification function. I took the decision in May to reappoint local authorities as the verifiers. I did that after reflecting for a long while and looking at the evidence that I had. I did it differently from my predecessors, in that I was not entirely happy, as the committee will have gathered from previous answers, about performance in three local authorities. Those authorities have been reappointed for one year only. The authorities that were performing averagely were reappointed for three years and those that were doing well were reappointed for six years. If I were not to reappoint a local authority in an area, that would not mean that I would necessarily appoint in the private sector. I could give the verification role to a neighbouring authority, for example. I will continue to look closely at all of that, including the audit that will take place in November.

On income, the committee will be aware that I took the decision to raise fees. I have gone round the country and have said that I have allowed for that increase in fees. The Government will retain some of that money to beef up building standards centrally, and I expect the rest of it to be used to boost building standard services in local authorities. I should point out that, where some authorities are not doing so well, it is not because of a lack of fees coming in. I will continue to monitor the situation.

Ms Smith is well aware that the Government has tried not to ring fence or dictate to local authorities what they should be doing. I will keep an eye on things, and if there is no improvement I will obviously enter into discussions with COSLA if it is felt that there is a need to ring fence.

On the general scenario in relation to work, the First Minister has made it clear that the Government aims to remove the pay cap. It is incumbent on all employers, no matter who they are, whether in the public or the private sector, to make sure that their employees are in a positive place and that they are not overly stressed or burdened.

I want to follow up briefly on the issue of retaining some of the funding for Mr Dodd’s department, as I assume you are talking about. Given the situation in Glasgow, where the offer of help was not taken up quickly, is there a place for a central flying squad type of arrangement in which officers who are centrally based could take on a role in the building regulation verification process? It seems as though I raised that issue a long time ago when I asked for comments at the start of the process of considering building regulations.

Mr Dodds has been the flying squad of late. I do not know whether he will appreciate me calling him that—I will find out when we leave the room.

Will that appear on your CV in the future, Mr Dodds? [Laughter.]

One of the reasons why we have retained some of that money is to beef up our building standards division because so much of its work has been focused on helping others elsewhere. As I have said, Mr Dodds has been to Stirling, Edinburgh, Glasgow and many other places, so we have additional audits that we would not normally have had.

Any local authority can call on the expertise of our building standards division, so we are putting in place a team that will be able to respond to any needs. Under the 2003 act, building standards are a matter for local authorities. Local authorities are on the ground and are best placed to carry out verification and enforcement. However, if they require additional expertise, they know that they can come to us for that.

Beyond that, I repeat that, if a local authority were not performing or not dealing particularly well with the situation that it faced, I would look to use my powers under the 2003 act to deal with that. In order for me to do so, I would have to rely on expertise from other authorities as well as our building standards division.

My main focus is to ensure that the right emphasis is put on investment in building standards not just by the Government but out there in all 32 local authorities. I hope that all elected members, whether in the Scottish Parliament or local authorities, will give more attention to building standards than we may have done in the past.

I have one final question, convener.

I have another question, too, but you can ask your question first, Ms Smith. We have about three minutes left, so both of us will have to be brief.

Thank you, convener.

On a slightly different subject, the FBU highlighted a 24 per cent fall in the number of uniformed fire safety inspection officers, which the FBU said puts remaining staff under considerable pressure. Will the Scottish Government look at fire safety inspection officer staffing and funding in light of the increasing workloads?

In the course of last week’s debate, it came to light that the Government has put an extra £27.1 million into the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service in this financial year.

I will let Mr McGown answer on the point about the inspectors, who have been doing an immense job of work—they were doing that before the Grenfell fire, but they have done even more since then, and I am very thankful for their efforts.

Just to confirm the figures, at the start of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, there were 89 uniformed fire safety enforcement officers. This year, we have 73 posts, five of which are currently being filled. We also have 13 specialist non-uniformed auditing officers, who carry out the same role as our fire safety enforcement officers. Our focus is on the work of those officers and our non-uniformed colleagues and the outcomes of that work.

The number of audits has remained stable over that period. We carry out upwards of 9,000 audits in relevant premises every year. More importantly for us, through those audits we are trying to achieve a fall in the number of fires in non-domestic premises. In the first quarter of this year, the number is at its lowest since the start of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.

We recognise the figures, which are as I have just reported. However, our outcomes, in terms of the number of non-domestic fires, are the best that they have been since the start of the service. We want that to continue with the number of staff that we have.

As a mopping-up exercise, I will finish with some of the questions that we hoped to ask. Maybe you can give us brief responses to them, minister, or you can write to us.

If there is anything at all that you require, let us know and we will respond in writing as quickly as we can.

I will put on the record two or three things that will inform our report.

We have heard that fire safety assessments of new-build properties can fall between two stools when buildings are partially occupied.

What you have heard in evidence is not necessarily what happens, but we will clarify that with you.

We would like clarity, or you could take on the suggestion that new-build properties should have a fire safety assessment prior to a completion certificate being signed. We will leave that sitting there.

The FBU suggested an intrusive inspection of all high-rise properties, and Mr McGown talked about the type of inspections that take place. We will leave that sitting there.

There does not appear to be a national standard for fire risk assessments, and there was a suggestion that there should be specific guidance to standardise the approach nationally. I am not saying that that is accurate; I am just saying that we heard that in evidence, so we are duty bound to raise it with you.

Sure. We have seen that evidence and we will give you a detailed response about that in writing.

It has been a long evidence session. I thank you, minister, and Mr McGown and Mr Dodds for your time.

Thank you for the opportunity, convener.

Do you have any final remarks before we close the evidence session?

The ministerial working group and I will look carefully at the committee’s recommendations. To ensure that people are safe in Scotland, we need to work in partnership, and I hope that we can do that with all partners across Scotland so that we get this absolutely right.

I thank everyone for their time. We will suspend briefly before moving quickly on to agenda item 2.

11:12 Meeting suspended.  

11:15 On resuming—